ATLANTA -- Featuring freshly prepared food to take home is the way to make money these days, but ambiance is a crucial ingredient that many supermarkets lack.
That was the message delivered by Bill Reynolds, director of continuing education at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y., at the food-service conference here, held jointly by the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association and the Food Marketing Institute.
"The place to make money is in food to go. It used to be that people wanted homemade food in a restaurant. Now they want restaurant quality food to take home," Reynolds said.
However, Reynolds added, food-service departments must make customers feel comfortable and taken care of, as much as -- if not more than -- any other part of the store.
"They're looking for more than a meal. They're looking for Mom," he explained. Reynolds then pointed out how a chef can help with both parts of the equation.
The presence of a chef, and a knowledgeable staff, go a long way toward inspiring customers' confidence in the quality of products, he said. For that reason, it's important to create work schedules that put knowledgeable people in the department in the early evening hours as well as at lunchtime.
"Consumers want information. Tell them about different olive oils and gradually introduce them to new cuisine. For example, add some lentils to your potato salad to get them used to them. If you just took out your potato salad and added lentil salad tomorrow, you wouldn't sell any," Reynolds said.
The more mixes and convenience items you use, the more you need a chef to individualize the product and make it "homemade," Reynolds said.
"For example, go ahead and use a prepared soup base, but add caramelized onions or fresh herbs to give it a signature flavor," he said, adding that a chef can figure out how to add interest to a product. He also emphasized that a chef on duty adds ambiance that makes customers feel comfortable.
"People want to feel taken care of. It's not just meal replacement, it's home replacement," he said, adding that an increasing number of food shoppers are divorced males who want to buy the atmosphere that comes with a home-cooked meal.
"Create a warm, fuzzy feeling in your department," he said. Fluorescent lighting doesn't make anyone or anything look good, he warned. Instead, he suggested retailers use accent lights that can show off the prepared foods in the service case. And wood touches can also warm the atmosphere, he added.
Theater is a must to draw customers' attention to the department, he also pointed out.
"For instance, whenever you can get fire into your operation, do it. People love to watch fire," he said. Rotisseries, open grills, brick ovens can provide the flames that attract people, he said.
"Your department, too, should be a bonanza of aromas. When I'm doing a cooking demo, I start sauteeing onions just to provide the aroma," he said.
"Cooking is a spectator sport. Most of the people who watch the cooking shows on [television] don't cook. They just like watching the process," he said.